Yaa Asantewaa: The Asante Warrior Queen who fought against British colonial rule
Nana Yaa Asantewaa was a prominent queen of the Ashanti Empire of the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). Her immense contributions to the fight for independence of the Ashanti Confederacy proved to be essential to the nationalist agitations that birthed Ghana’s independence in 1957. Within the Ashanti context, the name Yaa Asantewaa has come to be synonymous with courage and heroism. Not surprisingly therefore, countless Ashanti girls identify with the name.
Read More: Greatest African Queens of All Time
Early Life & Family
There have been conflicting reports surrounding the exact year of Yaa Asantewaa’s birth. Many historians however agree that she was born around 1840 into a Besease Asona clan (in present-day Central Region of Ghana).
Yaa Asantewaa’s parents were Kwaku Ampoma and Ata Po. Growing up in the mid-19th century, the young girl started life as a farmer, as was typical among the youth of her age. She planted crops around the town of Boankra, in present-day Ashanti Region, Ghana.
She had a younger brother, Nana Akwasi Afrane Opese, who was the ruler of the Ejisu traditional area of Ashanti (located in present-day Ashanti Region of Ghana).
Yaa Asantewaa was one of the numerous wives of Owusu Kwabena, a grandson of the seventh king of Ashanti, Osei Yaw Akoto. Right from her youth, she was widely known for her intelligence, strategic planning and activism.
Queen Mother of Ejisu and the Golden Stool
It is believed that it was her brother, Nana Akwasi, who named her queen mother of Ejisu. As queen mother, she had many socio-cultural and political responsibilities. She was known as “the Gatekeeper of the Sika Dwa”, a Golden Stool which has remained a potent symbol of power for the Ashanti Kingdom since the 17th century.
According to historians, Okomfo Anokye, who was a high priest and a co-founder of the Ashanti Confederacy, had invoked the Golden Stool from the skies. The stool, which was made of pure gold, is believed to have landed at the feet of Osei Tutu I, who would go on to become the first Asantehene (i.e. Ashanti King). It is also a widely-held belief that the soul of the Ashanti kingdom is contained in the Golden Stool.
As queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa was an influential matriarch in the kingdom as she had a say in deciding eligible candidates for the Stool when it became vacant. She functioned as the primary adviser of the Asantehene. As a result, she was the second most prominent figure in the Ashanti Empire.
The Arrival of the British to the Gold Coast and their attempts to subdue the Asante Kingdom
A British expedition arrived in the Gold Coast in the early part of the 19th century. They engaged in trade with the Fantes. The period also saw the British provide firearms to the natives to help them win their battles against tribes that refused to bend to their will. The British were militarily beneficial to their Fante allies during the Asante-Fante War (1806-1807).
When the leaders of the Ashanti Empire got wind of the help their rivals were receiving from the British, the Anglo-Ashanti relationship became fractured. Many of the chiefs and leaders of the Ashanti people deepened their animosity towards the British.
In 1823, Sir Charles McCarthy allied with the Fantes to support the Denkyira tribe against the Ashantis in Cape Coast. To the Ashanti leadership, this move was seen as the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Conflicts with the British
At the peak of British-Ashanti clashes in the 19th century, three Anglo-Ashanti wars were fought between 1824 and 1874. The British, together with their African allies, used their superior military gear and firepower to seize a number of territories of the Ashanti Kingdom.
Having completely overpowered the Ashantis, the British deposed the then-Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh I and forced the African ruler to go into exile in the Seychelles Islands. Also Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson, the then-Ejisuhene (Edwesuhene – Chief of Ejisu) was exiled.
Those forced exiles were part of a carefully orchestrated attempt the British to weaken the political leadership of the African kingdom in order to gain a foothold in the region.
The British then proceeded to demand that the Ashantis hand over their most prized jewel, the Golden Stool, to them.
Regent of Ejisu-Juaben
As many of the sub-chiefs were completely demoralized from the crushing defeats at the hands of the British, Yaa Asantewaa took it upon herself to rally the people of Ejisu and oppose the British colonial rule. She called on her fellow Ashanti chiefs and queens to meet and deliberate on ways to respond to the British. At the meeting, the leaders of the Ashantis also devised a plan to have their exiled king brought home.
The War of the Golden Stool
In 1900, British governor-general of the Gold Coast Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson held a meeting with the other chiefs of the Ashanti Empire in Kumasi and instructed them to give up the Golden stool. Feeling agitated and deeply disrespected, the Ashantis left the meeting and went home to prepare for war since they would not allow the Golden stool to leave the Ashanti Kingdom.
Yaa Asantewaa was the main force behind the Ashanti people. She is said to have given a speech to inspire the leaders of her community, stating that she and the women of Asanteman (i.e. the Ashanti Kingdom) were prepared to go to war against the British even if the men of her community were too afraid to defend the Golden Stool and its people.
In account of the story, the Queen Mother snatched a gun from one of the warlords present at the meeting and fired it into the air. This act of hers was meant to show to chiefs and male warriors that she was not going to sit idle while the British tried to impose their rule on the Asante Kingdom.
The first warrior queen in Asante history
Motivated by her speech, the entire kingdom felt reinvigorated and took up arms setting blockades to and fro Kumasi where the British had a fort. Yaa Asantewaa personally led the troops in the ensuing war against the British. The Queen Mother thus became the first woman in the history of the Ashanti Kingdom to take charge of an army.
Lasting for about 6 months, the war, which came to be known as the Yaa Asantewaa War, resulted in the demise of about 1,000 British and their African allies. The Ashanti forces, which comprised slightly above 5,000 troops, were defeated by the British. The Ashantis suffered heavy casualties, losing about 2,000 of their troops in the war, including some of their most valiant warriors and sub-chiefs.
Interesting facts about the Yaa Asantewaa War
The Yaa Asantewaa War was the last of three major wars fought between the British and the Asante Kingdom. Those three wars make up the Anglo-Ashanti Wars, with the first Anglo-Ashanti War occurring between 1823 and 1831.
Although preceding the independence of Ghana (in 1957) by more than half a century, the Yaa Asantewaa War undoubtedly served as an inspiration to the brave men and women who fought for the independence of Ghana.
Exile and Death
For her role in the war, Yaa Asantewaa captured and exiled to the Seychelles, where she stayed for two decades. She died on the island on October 17, 1921.
Yaa Asantewaa Girls’ Senior High School
In 1961, the Ghana Education Service, under the auspices of the Ghana Education Trust Fund as well as support from then-President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah, established a high school for girls called Yaa Asantewaa Girls’ Senior High School. As of 2023, the school can boast of a student population of more than 3000 girls – many of who are inspired by the works and achievements of Yaa Asantewaa.
Popular Questions & Answers about Yaa Asantewaa
Below, we shed more light on the life and bravery of this warrior queen of the Asante people as well as the incomparable accomplishments:
Why did Yaa Asantewaa resist the British?
She is famed for rallying the people of Ejisu and all of the Ashanti Kingdom to resist British colonial rule at all cost. She saw Britain’s increased advancement into inner parts of the Gold Coast as a threat to the sovereignty and future of the Ashanti Kingdom.
Yaa Asantewaa refused backing down despite knowing quite well that the British had superior firepower in the field of battle. Her primary objective was to defend her kingdom and people from British colonial rule.
Why did Yaa Asantewaa and the Ashantis refuse to give the Golden Stool to the British?
The first reason why the Asante people refused handing over the Golden Stool was due to the belief that the stool was a powerful symbol of the entire Ashanti Kingdom (i.e. Asanteman). It is believed that the stool is the royal and divine throne of the Asantehene (king of the Ashanti people).
In some accounts of the myths, the Golden Stool is said to house the spirit of the of Asante nation – including those living, dead, and those yet to be born. This makes it a very sacred object. It also explains why the Asante people that Golden Stool should never touch the ground.
How long did the Yaa Asantewaa War last?
Also known as the War of the Golden Stool, the Yaa Asantewaa War began somewhere in late March of 1900 and ended in September 1900. With an outright superior military equipment, the British and its allies from the coastal regions defeated the brave Asante fighters.
What were some of the major outcomes of the Yaa Asantewaa War?
Following its victory over the Asante people in September 1900, the British officials in the Gold Coast took a bold a decision to permanently subdue the entire Asante Kingdom by sending many of its leaders into exile. Yaa Asantewaa was one of the first people captured and shipped off to the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. With those powerful leaders out of the way, the British proceeded to fully annex the territory of Asante Empire.
Where was Yaa Asantewaa exiled to?
After the War of the Golden Stool, the British exiled Yaa Asantewaa to the Seychelles, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. It’s been estimated that the Seychelles consist of more than 110 islands. The total area of the islands is estimated at around 459 square kilometers (or 177 sq mi). The archipelago gained its independence from the British on June 29, 1976. Originally called L’Établissement, the capital of the Seychelles, Victoria, was renamed in honor of Queen Victoria in 1841.
Did Yaa Asantewaa ever return to her people?
No. The exiled queen never returned to her kingdom. She died on October 17, 1921.
The other Asante exiles, including King Prempeh I, were allowed to return to the Gold Coast in December 1924, three years after the death of Yaa Asantewaa.
The leaders of the Asante Kingdom made sure that the remains of Yaa Asantewaa and other exiles that died in the Seychelles were brought to kingdom and given a befitting burial.
What happened to the Golden Stool?
Despite their strong determination to lay hands on the Golden Stool, the British were never able to the prized jewel from the Ashantis. The Stool, till date, is used in coronation rites and remains a highly-esteemed emblem of the former Ashanti Empire.
Who were Yaa Asantewaa’s parents?
It is generally accepted that the Ejisu Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa was born around 1840. Her parents were Ata Po.
What is the meaning of her name?
Her name Yaa suggests that she was born on a Thursday.
Among many Akan people in West Africa, children are named after the day of the week on which they were born. Every name attached to the seven days of the week carries a meaning. For example, Sunday male and female children are named Kwasi (or Akwasi) and Akosua (or Esi) respectively. For example, the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), was named Kwame because he was born on a Saturday. Then, there is Kofi Annan (1938-2018), the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, was named Kofi for being born on a Friday.
In the case of Yaa Asantewaa, the Ejisu Queen Mother was born on Thursday (Yahwada), a day the Akans often associate with Earth.
Why is Yaa Asantewaa revered in Asante history and the history of Ghana in general?
Yaa Asantewaa is perhaps the most revered woman in the history of the Ashanti Kingdom. She has been alluded to in many folklores. Her bravery and her warrior spirit have been used as inspiration to the Ghanaian youth. She is a symbol of defiance in gender roles.
There have been proposals from some sections of the Ghanaian public to have the international airport in the capital Accra renamed after Yaa Asantewaa.
The Yaa Asantewaa Museum in Ejisu
To honor her valor and influence, a museum was established in her honor in the Ejisu-Juaben District of Ghana. Again, an achievement award, the Nana yaa Asantewaa Awards, was issued to honor women who exemplify leadership qualities similar to Yaa Asantewaa’s.
In July 2004, a fire broke out in the Yaa Asantewaa Museum in Kwaso, Ejisu. Tragically the fire destroyed a number of important artifacts, including the Queen Mother’s sandals and battle gear (batakarikese).
Legacy of Yaa Asantewaa
The Yaa Asantewaa Festival, which is celebrated in August every year, is a way for the chiefs and people of Ejisu commemorate the heroic deeds of the former Queen Mother. Another Yaa Asantewaa Festival was founded by the Royal House of Queen Mother Naa Yaa Asantewaa Ababio II to commemorate the 95th year of her death.
During the festival, libations, songs, and prayers are said in honor of the Queen Mother.
Described as a short, smallish lady, Yaa Asantewaa led Asante warriors and chiefs to fight boldly against the British colonialists in the year 1900. Her bravery, tenacity and patriotism continue to be celebrated in so many shapes and form.
To some African historians, the Ejisu Queen Mother ranks up there as one of the most influential black women throughout history.
The British jazz group Sons of Kemet took some bit of inspiration from the life and achievements of Yaa Asantewaa when making the 2018 album “Your Queen Is a Reptile”. The seventh track on the album is even titled “My Queen is Yaa Asantewaa”.
In 2021, the GUBA Excellence Awards celebrate a century of the transition of Yaa Asantewaa. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – a senior official of the World Trade Organaization (WTO) – was presented with the GUBA Asantewaa Award. Okonjo-Iweala is best known for being the first woman and first African to become the head of the WTO.
Her image was featured on the Twenty Cedis note of 1986.
Named in the warrior-queen’s honor, the Yaa Asantewaa Library project was established (by Juliet Yaa Asantewaa Asante) as a citizen-driven initiative to help Ghanaian children develop the habit of reading books.
Adu Boahen (2003). Yaa Asantewaa and the Asante-british War of 1900-1
Carmichael, John (1993). African Eldorado – Gold Coast to Ghana. Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd
Edgerton, Robert B. (2010). The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War For Africa’s Gold Coast. Simon & Schuster
Ernest E. Obeng (1986) Ancient Ashanti Chieftaincy, Ghana Publishing Corporation.
McCaskie, T. C. (2003). State and Society in Pre-colonial Asante. Cambridge University Press
Wilks, Ivor (1989). Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order